Editor’s Note: Last week, we reported that the Community Design Collaborative had awarded a service grant to ViaductGreene, the group who has presented a vision of a single, connected linear park comprised of the above ground Reading Viaduct and the submerged railbed (the City Branch, one of the oldest railways in the US) that runs west along Pennsylvania Avenue behind the Barnes Museum. That report produced a flurry of comments calling the idea into question. Most of the commenters hoped to see the City Branch returned to passenger rail service, connecting the transit juggernaut at City Hall with the less-than-perfectly-served Art Museum and Fairmount Park. Given the contentiousness of the response, we asked proponents of each side to make a case. What follows here is a vision of a park and non-motorized transitway by Paul vanMeter of ViaductGreene. Click HERE for Stephen Stofka’s case for returning the City Branch to transit use.
Today the world is on cusp of a hyper-urbanism of dramatic and disruptive change. Places that power our imaginations will drive cities forward.
People seek the authentic. Picked padlocks, clipped chain links, broken barriers, paths of desire. The world over, people go, explore, see. They aren’t up-to-no-good, just curious about what’s there. One thing you can count on, behind those barriers there is a there there and–for less than entirely useful reasons–you can’t be there.
Sometimes it’s a building people want to experience; increasingly it’s a place, a site, “a built artifact, a mosaic of designs and purpose.” An authentic place. So often that means a post-industrial place, a post-industrial ruin.
…there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. There has to be (in our new concept of history) an interim of death or rejection before there can be renewal and reform. The old order has to die before there can be a born-again landscape. — J.B. Jackson, author of A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time
It was with great intentions of civic habit, urban restructuring and beautification, that the old order, Philadelphia’s powerful industrial base, its workshop of world, was rejected and died.
No place in Philadelphia better exemplifies this change than the Reading Railroad’s combined City and 9th Street Branch railroads, the Reading Viaduct and its older and less understood underground section–what together we imagine as a three mile linear park, ViaductGreene. It is a great place, a ruin awaiting a born-again landscape.
In 1927, Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque raised the notion that western civilization’s most important contribution to architecture is the integrated and planned landscape. His articles of the 1920s fostered interest in historic preservation when important places were being demolished. The Picturesque celebrates the aesthetic and how it was practiced in 17th and 18th century garden design–that ruins and wildness have power as old Rome or Greece does; elements to be respected and dignified.
It was with a prodigious interest in gardenmaking, respecting and dignifying the ruin, that Liz Maillie and I founded ViaductGreene, the idea of creating a born-again landscape. The goal? Not to screw it up! To that perfection of the authentic we are committed.
We acknowledge the equally authentic urge to return the City Branch to transit. On the other hand, experience tells us that the best light-rail systems are at grade. So I agree with the planners suggesting that light-rail be integrated into the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
But we are not–I don’t believe anyone is–opposed to the idea that one day, some day, under some unknown and currently unforeseeable circumstance, rail transit can return to the City Branch. Indeed, any substantive access improvements (stairs, elevators, etc.) made for creating a gardenpark could support it.
If someone really does have a viable sounding plan, utilizing the current equipment available, realistic financing, I’m thrilled to listen. Who wouldn’t be?
In our analysis–and we are dedicated rail people in love with trains and transit–there are too many practical impediments to integrating the City Branch into the SEPTA system. Too short, too deep, too inaccessible for practical connections to either the Rt 15 or Broad Street Subway, the ViaductGreene corridor is compelling as transit for pedestrians and bicyclists: 55 blocks without encountering automobiles, trucks, and buses with all their correspondent traffic controls has immeasurable appeal!
Just now, and for the near-long term future, we see telling the story of the city’s industrial past, and creating access and programming to what already is a great, exciting, and beautiful place worthwhile in the extreme and imminently doable, no matter the challenges.
Thus, ViaductGreene seeks to create a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructure that is the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s 9th Street & City Branches.
The Big Idea is that it is impossible to consider the mostly below-grade City Branch severed from the elevated viaduct of the 9th Street Branch, any more than it’s severed from the history of its great city and its grandest building projects. Book-ended with Philadelphia’s pioneer 1830s railway corridors, it is a great place and like all great places, it’s the marked contrasts within a powerful consistency that attracts us.
As respectful placemakers, we maintain no small understanding of interdisciplinary design imagination as well as design process.
In design, ViaductGreene celebrates the stories of the City Branch and people. The “detached, superior and slightly intellectual” Reading, Philadelphia’s rowdy railroad; the other railroad. The massive Baldwin Locomotive Works with its enormously efficient products of deep craft and astonishing beauty exported the world over. Spectacular and ever relevant personalities from Stephen Girard to Franklin Gowen, Frank Furness, Archie McLeod to Tony Drexel, George Childs. Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, Mollie Maguires. “Ned” Stotesbury to Jacques Gréber and Paul Philippe Cret. Roberts, Scotts, and Cassatts. John Wanamaker, John Johnson, and Walter Annenberg. How superb it is the powers-that-be have, of late, brought Philadelphia’s favorite misanthrope Albert Barnes to the neighborhood! The precious tales!
Only in the recent past have placemakers moved past emulating and replicating spaces to embracing places with their own powerful mythology, places like ViaductGreene, and with them, to creating a born-again landscape.
In design, ViaductGreene illuminates darkness, often wonderfully, sometimes dramatically.
In design, ViaductGreene’s grade-separated infrastructure circumscribes safe, secure passage and regulates open hours.
In design, ViaductGreene’s undercover portions hold great promise for programming, animation and activity, important when making a fiscally sustainable place.
In respectful design will come pleasure, charm, health, and answers to the detractors questions. In respectful design will come transformation, participation, invention, engagement, and enchantment–a new and authentic experience of the city.